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Sitting in the Editor’s Chair

Tova Goodman shifts from Freakonomics to The Simpsons


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View an excerpt from The History Channel’s Clash of the Gods.

A month after graduating from Boston University’s film program, Tova Goodman traveled to Micronesia to write, produce, and edit educational videos. Topics ranging from domestic violence to economic stability and health care were shown on local television; the experience left her with some culture shock but also with production experience, inspiring a passion for editing.

Returning home, she landed freelance editing positions in New York City with the History Channel, the Discovery Channel, and WETV, as well as working with independent filmmakers.

Currently, Goodman (COM’02) (right) is wrapping up an editing assignment with director Morgan Spurlock — best known for his major hit Super Size Me — on Freakonomics, a new feature based on the New York Times best-selling book by Steven D. Leavitt and Stephen J. Dubner.
Another big project in the works: The Simpsons 20th anniversary documentary.

BU Today: Describe your role as editor.
My role varies based on the project and the working style of the producer or director; some are very hands-on, others allow me creative freedom. When I edited the History Channel’s Clash of the Gods, many executives were involved and each cut had to be approved, responding to the needs of the clients, the network and the production company. That contrasts with Freakonomics, in which I work mainly with director Morgan Spurlock. He reviews my edits and offers notes, but I have more freedom in terms of choices.

With all films and videos, but especially documentaries, stories develop during the editing phase. I’ve never worked with a producer or director who has created a script that remains unchanged in postproduction, because nobody can envision how all the pieces will come together until the editing process unfolds.

Most of my time is spent figuring out how I want to structure a story. I work with the basic outline created by the producer or director and find the right interview bites and set the pacing. I comb through music libraries to find music that will set the right mood. And music can make or break a scene; most people don’t understand that. It’s the most visceral thing people react to when they’re watching a film or video. So I try to find music that isn’t overwrought and cheesy.

I worked with a composer on Freakonomics. We would go back and forth talking about the feeling. It was such a luxury to tailor the music for each scene.

What major misconceptions do people have about an editor’s role?
The technology trips people up. It’s hard for them to understand the digital world, how files are moved around, what is actually being cut, and the limitations.

This misunderstanding can be expensive. For example, directors and producers try to cut corners during production by undershooting, taking on a “we’ll fix it in postproduction” mentality. It just adds time and increases costs.

Also, people aren’t aware of how much editing is involved in a project; they think the final product is much like the initial idea.

How did you discover your passion for editing?
So many film students want to be directors. But I never had an interest in organizing a cast and crew in a tight, stressful situation. I wanted to do all the things that don’t involve directing. When I was in the film program at Boston University, I shot a classmate’s film. I enrolled in a sound design class. I edited several films. I enjoyed every aspect of filmmaking, but I felt a lot more control with editing. I like having the time and freedom to sit and shape a final product, instead of working in short bursts as a director.

Do you change your approach based on the project?
With documentaries, like fictional narrative films, you need to create a story with an arc. I prefer editing documentaries, because of the challenge involved. Instead of sifting through footage to find the actors’ best performances, I want to find the right moments in interviews, through the stories people share, and develop scenes from scratch.

Another reason I prefer working on documentaries is because it can be difficult to work with a filmmaker’s ego. Writers and directors put so much into a film, and occasionally refuse to cut things out. They don’t realize the point of hiring someone unattached to the footage is to bring clarity.

How has your editing style changed over time?
I don’t get as frustrated when I have to make changes, and I can anticipate problems earlier.

As for my style, I’m continually expanding my understanding of options. I used to always cut fast-paced and to rely heavily on music. Now I use more ambient sounds and let scenes breathe when the pacing should be slowed down.

I’m also more business-minded. I have a better understanding of how to serve a client. And I can more accurately anticipate how much time it will take to complete a project.

What have you seen that’s influenced or impressed you?
I thought the short-lived National Public Radio–turned television series This American Life exhibited impressive cinematography and editing. As expected, because of its roots, the sound design was very thoughtful. The editors allowed for long atmospheric shots, and the scenes were allowed to play out, a credit to the editors in that it never felt boring.

A more recent favorite, Hurt Locker, is fiction about the Iraq War. It’s incredibly intense and emotional. I was constantly engaged, scared, and on the edge of my seat. But so much of the film isn’t violent; it shows people’s fears of violence. Emotion stirred up in the audience is a mark of a great editor. You can’t shoot a scene to elicit emotion; it has to be edited that way.

Tell us about your most recent editing job, Freakonomics.
When Freakonomics was optioned, five directors and producers were hired to create a film version of a chapter from the book. Each chapter serves as a self-contained documentary.

I edited Morgan Spurlock’s chapter, “Would a Roshanda by Any Other Name Smell as Sweet?” The chapter investigates the economic effects of naming a child with a “white-sounding” versus an “ethnic-sounding” name. We include interviews with experts, such as Roland Fryer, a Harvard professor of economics, and pair them with man-on-the street segments, voiceover, and funny animations, as one would expect from Spurlock.

The major challenge involved integrating animation developed by the production company Curious Pictures. We had to be fastidious about every frame, constantly discussing shot lengths. I also had some technical issues conforming the footage, because the project was edited using Avid, but then conformed using Final Cut Pro.

How did your Boston University education prepare you for your career?
I started editing on a Steenbeck, a flatbed editing machine that requires you to physically cut and splice film. It made me appreciate how expensive and time-consuming the process is, why I enjoy working with video and editing digitally today. But more important, it instilled the importance of learning simple storytelling techniques, not getting bogged down with effects. I learned patience from a slower process.

What advice would you offer students looking for editing jobs?
As a freelancer, you have to be a savvy business professional, selling yourself and negotiating. You can’t rely on creativity to market your talent; you need very tangible things, like a Web site.

In school, students can become overly concerned with the technical aspect of editing. But since technology is constantly changing, it’s more important to learn how to tell a story by focusing on style and what makes effective cuts.

What’s next?
After our collaboration on Freakonomics, Morgan hired me to edit his newest project, a documentary for Fox commemorating the 20th anniversary of The Simpsons. The focus will be on cultural commentary, how people worldwide have responded to the show.

I just started, and already the office is full of Simpsons stuff.

Robin Berghaus can be reached at berghaus@bu.edu.


2 Comments on Sitting in the Editor’s Chair

  • John Hall on 10.05.2009 at 9:18 am

    Thanks for this engaging and informative Q&A. Tova was a standout student of mine years back in my CO201 writing class. Even then she was a great editor of other people’s work–in that case, their writing.

    I hope to share some of her insights about editing films with my current students. They could learn much from her experiences.

  • Jane Kogan on 10.05.2009 at 7:34 pm

    Dear Tova: Way to go! Looking forward to seeing Freakonomics when it’s out. Much love, Jane

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